Rocket Explosions
Impressive but expensive fireworks...


The Incredible Edible Hypnomissile!
A U.S. Navy Trident missile goes awry shortly after a test launch from a submarine off the coast of Cape Canaveral several years ago. The missile exploded shortly after this photo was taken. There was no injury to the submarine or its crew, although family members of the submarine crew who had been invited to watch the launch from a nearby ship (from which this photo was taken) were understandably quite upset. The submarine captain, watching the test through the sub's periscope, was reported to have been mesmerized for several hours. :^}
(CNN Photo)
Ooooops... better call Maaco...
A Titan IV-A rocket explodes on the morning of August 12, 1998, spectacularly lobbing a billion-dollar, top-secret "Mercury" spy satellite into the Atlantic just off the Cape Canaveral beach. The explosion occurred 40 seconds after launch at an altitude of about 20,000 feet and was loud enough to set off car alarms 20 miles away. Investigations are focusing on a failure in a solid rocket booster. The salvage operations were the largest ever except for those for the Challenger disaster. Several pieces washed up on Space Coast beaches.
(USAF Photo)

"...we have LOS of signal..."

Living only about 35 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, rocket launches are a pretty routine thing around here. But people forget that anytime you send large vehicles full of extremely volatile propellants, often surrounded by large solid fuel rocket boosters that cannot be stopped once started, anything that goes wrong has the potential to end in total disaster. While everyone has seen countless replays of footage of the Challenger disaster, it happens to unmanned rockets on occasion too. While nobody wants to see hundreds of millions of dollars go up in smoke, at least with the unmanned launches you aren't usually dealing with any loss of life. These events tend to get little press coverage, when compared to manned missions.

On the evening of August 25, 1998, I witnessed the failure of the inaugural launch of the new Delta III rocket, carrying a Galaxy 10 communication satellite. This was the second rocket explosion I've ever seen firsthand, the first was a Delta II about 10 years ago that wasn't nearly as spectacular. The series of events in the Delta III explosion was one of the more spectacular things I have ever seen. Here is the description I emailed to my friends as soon as I got home.

Thought this might be an interesting story to those of you into space, or technology, or just blowing things up and the like.

I recently sent an email to my friend Ruchelle and joked about she should watch tonight's Delta 3 rocket launch in case it blew up. Well, I'm gonna quit saying things like that, because although the launch was late, we got "treated" to the most incredible explosion I've ever seen in my life!! I drove out to the beach boardwalk at Patrick AFB across from hangar 800, and we waited for the launch. After multiple short delays (ironically enough, one of which was a false alarm in a self-destruct sensor... it'll be interesting to see if that proves to be related) they finally launched. From Patrick you can see the rocket on the pad over the ocean. Launch appeared normal, climbing for about a minute and a half normally. But suddenly the dern thing just blew up as soon as the first stage boosters burned out, about one and a half minutes into the flight!! I saw a few glowing chunks shoot out to the side, then lots of glowing pieces arcing down from the spot where things had obviously gone awry. It looked a bit like a large bottle rocket or something. There was a large blue glowing area of smoke where the initial problem occurred.

What was really amazing was that in addition to all the bright dots of burning pieces that were now descending slowly towards the ocean, the second stage (apparently) kept going downrange. For a little while, it actually looked almost like it should have, just a big trail of fire heading kind of along the same course it was going originally. I was convinced that the rocket motor(s) were burning, it didn't have the "pieces on fire" look but it looked like a rocket booster firing fairly normally, and pretty much in the direction it should have been. I heard on my walkman that they had lost the signal, but it seemed for a few moments as if perhaps the second stage had perhaps kept going successfully.

Soon though we realized it was starting to arc towards the sea, and finally it was headed straight down, far out to sea. By this point, it was visible but looked like just a chunk of burning wreckage. We thought it would probably burn out, but it didn't. There was a boat near the horizon (in reality it was probably less than 5 miles offshore, while the rocket was at least 15 or 20) but it looked like the falling second stage was going to hit it... it actually did hit about where the boat was, from our perspective, just much farther away. The flaming rocket, whose flame trail grew and grew to very impressive proportions, became more and more visible as it approached the water. Then, from our perspective lined up right where that boat was, it actually went OVER the horizon, trailing a long stream of red fire with many flaming bits coming off. I'm not sure how much of the red was from the fuel and how much was from the distance and haze, probably a combination of both. It surprised me how far over the horizon it must have been, because the whole fire trail had time to disappear (it seemed to take forever.) A second or two later, a sudden bright red glow appeared in the haze from where it had hit, looking just like the glow you see when the shuttle or a rocket ignites at night and you're too far away to see it right away. A second after that, a HUGE boiling red fireball appeared rising up from the point of impact. It was absolutely amazing!! Scale is hard to judge at an unknown distance at night, but I would guess this thing was a half a mile wide. It looked for all the world like an early low-yield atomic bomb test in the desert, seen from a range of about 20 miles. Everyone who was on the boardwalk was almost speechless. Then it burned itself out after rising above the horizon for some distance, and there was nothing more to see.

I even have NEXRAD images of it... the smoke from the explosion is at 55 thousand feet and still visible an hour and a half later (on radar at least.)

Well I've had my excitement for the night. Sorry if this is boring to anyone but it was quite an amazing thing to watch all this and I had to tell *somebody* :^)

On August 28 it was reported that at 55 seconds into flight, the rocket began having steering problems. Ultimately it lost all of the hydraulic fluid used to move the steerable rocket nozzles used for flight control, leading to the eventual explosion at about T+1:20. Once steering is lost on a rocket, you are in BIG trouble. When you are moving through the air at many hundreds or thousands of miles per hour, a few degrees of unscheduled yaw in any direction produces incredible loads upon the structure... and in most all cases the result is the immediate (and, fortunately for this page, spectacular) breakup of the vehicle. In addition, all rockets (including the Space Shuttle) have several explosive self-destruct mechanisms installed that can be fired either automatically by on-board systems when they sense large, uncorrectable flight path deviations, and/or by ground controllers whose job it is to ensure that nothing can come back towards any populated areas, shipping lanes, etc. No matter what, you are going to have giant, flaming chunks of rocket falling into the water, but the idea is to structurally destroy the pieces to make them fall ballistically from gravity rather than allow any rocket-propelled unguided missiles to fly away from the explosion. If you need any convincing that this is necessary, notice the two SRBs taking off on their own right after the Challenger exploded. After a few moments, ground controllers did destroy both boosters... but not before it was proven that they could, indeed, fly just fine on their own. Had the self-destruct mechanisms failed and one of the boosters straightened out its flight path... remember, they had about a minute left to continue firing full-tilt... it could have easily flown a LOOOOOONNNNNGGG way. I'm thinking Orlando, Disney, West Palm Beach, Lakeland, Daytona here... maybe even Tampa or Miami with the right angle upwards. Wouldn't really matter whose backyard it landed in... they likely wouldn't have lived to tell the tale.

Anytime a bunch of rocket propellants are burned up in one place in the sky, it creates a large cloud that is actually visible on weather radars. After these things happen, whether I've seen the actual explosion or not, I always try to go to Intellicast and see if it's visible on the radar. I once got a tour of the Melbourne office of the National Weather Service and their NEXRAD WSR-88D Doppler radar, which is located only about three miles from my house. On that tour we saw such wonders as the ability to see flying insects 40 miles away and the smoke trail from a normal Delta launch. Here are a few pictures of some explosion events, as seen by the unblinking eye of the NEXRAD and a couple of other radars run by local TV stations. I was not able to find any satellite images of the explosion, although it should have been visible if you can find the right imagery source. After Challenger, the large cloud produced (actually just a cloud of water... the only by-product of burning hydrogen and oxygen propellants) was clearly visible to weather satellites (with an optical resolution of a half-mile-wide cloud)... quite a testimony of the sheer immensity of the enormous size of that event.

BELOW: A Titan IV-A rocket explodes on August 12, 1998, lobbing a billion-dollar top-secret spy satellite into the ocean just off the beach. The explosion occurred 40 seconds into flight at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. Massive salvage efforts were made to recover the pieces.
(CNN/USAF Photo)

"Meanwhile, in a severe blow to U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts, a top-secret, billion-dollar U.S. spy satellite explodes spectacularly shortly after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, spewing spies all over the place. Secret decoder rings are found as far away as Alabama."
-Dave Barry in his 1998 year-end review

Delta 2 NEXRAD Image 1/17/97
There is a great radar loop of the Delta II explosion that occurred on January 17, 1997, as seen in the National Weather Service's Melbourne office. I hope the NWS won't mind too much if I repost it here for you. The exhaust drifted south over populated areas, causing much consternation among Space Coast residents and a revamping of civil defense planning for failed launches. This file is 583 KB. Click to download.

  Delta 3 NEXRAD Image 8/26/98
A NEXRAD view of the exhaust plume of the Delta 3 failure on August 26, 1998. Launch time was 9:17 PM EDT, with the failure occuring about 1:20 into flight. It was later revealed that there had been control problems starting at 55 seconds into flight, which were corrected automatically (using the steerable rocket nozzles.) It is believed that a depletion of the hydraulic fluid used by the steering system resulted in a loss of steering and ultimately in the loss of the vehicle.

Delta 3 NEXRAD Image 8/26/98
NEXRAD detects the altitude (55,000 feet) of the mass of smoke in these shots, as well as their motion, just as if they were normal rain clouds. Later reports confirmed that 50,000 feet was the approximate altitude of the explosion.

Delta 3 WFTV-TV Super Doppler 9000 Radar Image 8/26/98
This is the smoke later, after it had drifted back towards the northwest. Whether this is the explosion plume or the pre-explosion trail is unclear, however the lifetime of the exhaust trail from a launch tends to be proportional to altitude. It is not uncommon to still see the smoke several hours after a launch, depending on the weather, lighting, and type of rocket. High altitude winds blow the smoke in a myriad of directions... one Delta launch even resulted in a nearly perfect five-pointed star-shaped cloud a couple of hours after the launch.

Related Links

NASA Kennedy Space Center
KSC / Shuttle Live Cameras
Patrick AFB Homepage
Launch Schedules and Info
USAF Space & Missile Museum
(Go!! This place rocks!!)
Melbourne NEXRAD
Melbourne Radar Summary
WFTV Channel 9 (Orlando) Radar
National Weather Service, Melbourne
(No real-time images, but neat historical ones)

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